Avarice, one of the seven capital (“deadly”) sins, is more difficult to discern in our society than are Gluttony and Lust — at least, it’s more difficult than one may suspect. We need not agree with William Jennings Bryan that “No one can earn a million dollars honestly,” though today you would need $30+ million to match the purchasing power of Bryan’s $1 million. Avarice shows not in how much money one makes but in what one does to others in order to make that money. The capital sins drive other sins beyond themselves. That’s what makes them deadly.
Avarice, Scarcity, and Sufficiency
First, as you may have guessed from the title, Avarice is the immoderate desire for, or as the old Catholic Encyclopedia put it, “the inordinate love of” money or wealth. Today we call it greed, though to be greedy (from which greed was back-formed) is also to be prone to overeat. (Indeed, colloquial English tends to use greed, lust, and gluttony somewhat interchangeably.) However, to say that Avarice is an inordinate or immoderate desire is to implicitly admit a degree of desire for money which is appropriate.
As you also may have guessed from the previous articles, Avarice also manifests the scarcity mindset: “There isn’t enough to go around, so I must get as much as I can for myself.” The mindset persists even in the midst of abundance so that the avaricious never believe they have enough. The difficulty for us is that our economy depends on creating and maintaining the perception (illusion?) that everything is scarce to some degree. In essence, it creates an artificial (or useful) greed, where we are more concerned with pathological greed.
In the previous articles, we distinguished between desire, want, and need. However, that people need at least some money to survive and thrive ought to be incontestable. Not only does a sufficiency of money provide the essentials (food and water, clothes, shelter, etc.), but it also provides some comfort and access to the people, places, and events that deepen and enrich our lives. And, as St. Clement of Alexandria put the question, “… [I]f no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving [to the poor]?” (Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? 13)
Naturally, “sufficiency of money” as a metric is too subjective and too contingent on local economic conditions for us to quote a single number. Nevertheless, we can hold a person sufficiently wealthy who can provide a dignified living for their family, pay their debts, and save against future loss of income — illness, unemployment, retirement — without requiring welfare support. (See John C. Médaille, Toward a Truly Free Market, esp. ch. 11, for the economic rationale.) Ideally, having met this metric of financial security, a person’s work behavior ought to be driven solely by their ambition and sense of their obligations.
The economy treats money as scarce, too.
The Right of Property and the Universal Destination of Goods
Before going further, let’s explore Catholic teaching on the right of property:
That Man is naturally self-interested to some degree is part of the human condition, especially so far as it enables survival. But to argue that self-interest is therefore good in se or deserving of moral primacy would be to commit an “appeal to nature” fallacy. Rather, because we are also social, political, and relational, our individual survival also depends to a degree on subordinating our interests to the needs of others, particularly to the common good of the community, and especially to that “community writ small” known as the family. This requires we develop the countervailing virtue of generosity, or magnanimity.
Mindful of this community aspect, the Church holds that the individual right of property springs from the universal destination of goods: we each have a special right to some of the earth’s resources precisely because those resources radically belong to all of us. “Private property … is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 177; cf. St. Paul VI, Populorum Progressio 22-23).
Because these resources radically belong to us all, the right of property is not absolute but rather only to sufficiency. Beyond that sufficiency, “man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 66, A. 2, resp.). This “stewardship” aspect of private property was a common theme of the Church Fathers; that wealth exists to be shared was not an innovation of the socialist but a traditional teaching of the Christian (CSDC 328-9).
If a man has an apartment stacked to the ceiling with newspapers, we call him crazy. If a woman has a trailer house full of cats, we call her nuts. But when people pathologically hoard so much cash that they impoverish the entire nation, we put them on the cover of Fortune Magazine and pretend that they are role models.
—Attributed to “B. Lester”
Saving against future loss of income is an act of simple financial prudence. The Catholic Church’s teaching on the “family wage” embraces “the acquisition of property as a guarantee of freedom … [and to] protect themselves from need” (CSDC 250). It’s also quite natural to wish to leave some legacy for one’s children. However, if we can’t quite draw an objective “bright line” between this simple, natural prudence and the hoarding behavior of Avarice, we can still sense a qualitative difference.
Avarice hoards because the scarcity mindset can’t say, I have enough. Comfort, possessions, social and political power — the desire for any of these good (or morally neutral) things can be transformed by pathology into inordinate cravings or “lusts” that must be satisfied, which generally requires more and more money. Alternately, the craving may be for financial security: the person lives in existential dread of poverty and is driven to protect themselves against an ever-looming calamity which will thrust them, naked and starving, into the cold.
Catholics have never seen a conflict or paradox between faith in God’s Providence and prudential action (“Trust in God but tie your camel,” as the Arabs say). We live in the realization that much if not most of what happens in life is beyond our ability to control, so we do the best we can and rely on God’s benevolence for the rest. But Avarice isn’t capable of that trust. Moreover, Avarice, being entirely self-interested, blinds the sinner to the needs of others; it “takes care of Number One” at the expense of all others.
Avarice and Theft
Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote his defense of private property in the context of sins against the Seventh Commandment (“You shall not steal”). The Catholic tradition recognizes the hoarding of Avarice as an indirect form of stealing. “Vainly, then, do those suppose themselves innocent, who claim to their own private use the common gift of God; those who, in not imparting what they have received, walk in the midst of the slaughter of their neighbours; since they almost daily slay so many persons as there are dying poor whose subsidies they keep close in their own possession” (St. Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule 3:21).
But Avarice can also lead to more direct forms of stealing. Consider the owner or manager of a fast-food restaurant who forces employees to clock out at 40 hours and return to work to avoid paying overtime; this is not only illegal but also one of the sins that “cry to Heaven for vengeance” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1867; cf. Deuteronomy 24:14-15, James 5:4). On the other hand, consider the well-compensated trader who embezzles his clients’ investments for his own ends, or the pastor who diverts part of his flock’s tithes into his personal account.
Not all theft is driven by Avarice. For instance, Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, was driven by dire need to steal bread to feed his starving nephew. Saint Thomas argued that dire need such as Valjean’s made the theft of the bread licit precisely because of the “stewardship” aspect of wealth (STh II, Q. 66, A. 7, resp.). Envy and covetousness can also drive theft; when combined with greed, they make for career criminals and communist revolutionaries. But the indirect theft caused by avaricious hoarding has the widest, most far-reaching consequences.
It’s also the vice our society labors hardest to convert into a virtue.
It isn’t wrong to desire comfort and security after your basic needs are met. Given the “useful greed” our economic system propagates, it isn’t necessarily avoidable. But while seeing the way the affluent live may prompt us to want more, one corrective to Avarice is to see the way the destitute live and be grateful we have as much as we do. I’ve been desperately poor; yet even then, there were people much worse off than I. The grass on the other side of one fence may be greener; but on the other side of another fence, it’s often browner.
Certainly, take some thought for the future. But, as I’ve said before, realize that the future isn’t written and isn’t in your control; what happens tonight may make your plans for tomorrow irrelevant, as they did with the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life” (Matthew 6:27)? Let your gratitude for today’s sufficiency lead you to some measure of generosity toward others less fortunate. That way, you’ll be investing in your future with God.